RINDE ECKERT: “Not ‘Moby-Dick But Whale-ish”
Reviewers have often commented on Rinde Eckert’s remarkable stage presence. “He’s tall and bald and he looks a good deal like an overgrown elf,” a San Francisco critic once wrote. “But when [he] opens his mouth to sing it’s as if there’s an angel inside.” And critic John Rockwell, writing in the New York Times, has referred to the persona that emerge from Mr. Eckert’s texts as that of “an American loner-eccentric, with touches of Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Waits.”

The performer is currently enacting the latest version of this persona in “And God Created Great Whales,” which had its world premiere June 8 and plays through June 25 at Dance Theater Workshop’s Bessie Schoenberg Theatre. Although inspired by a certain whaling epic by another American loner-eccentric, Mr. Eckert said in a recent interview, “I’m not interested in doing ‘Moby Dick.’ Melville did that very well.” Instead, the 80-minute music-theater piece, in which he sings, speaks, and plays piano and ukelele, “stands in a clear relation to the epic but ramifies it in completely different ways.”

As the youngest of four children born to two opera singers who taught music (Rinde, pronounced RIN-dee, is his mother Doris’s maiden name), Mr. Eckert practically grew up on the stage. At the age of 8, he went backstage at intermission to visit his father, Robert Eckert, who was performing in “La Boheme” at the Amato Opera Company on the Bowery, and found himself conscripted to play one of the children in the second act. For him, nothing could be more natural.

Not surprisingly, when he went to college at the University of Iowa, his plan was to study theater. Midway through, however, Mr. Eckert found himself annoyed by the lack of specificity to the training and switched to music “because they had a technique they were actually teaching you,” he recalled. “They were asking concrete questions about mechanics and structure. Most of the theater departments I knew were all over the place. They had no consistent philosophy. I thought, how is it possible for an intelligent person to arrange himself idiosyncratically in relation to this emotional chaos?”

This existential question, framed early, could serve as a unifying theme for the entire body of work the 48-year-old Mr. Eckert has written, performed, directed, composed, or recorded in the last 15 years. From the series of collaborations with composer Paul Dresher that began in 1985 with “Slow Fire” to Stephen Markey’s 1998 two-act solo opera “Ravenshead,” Mr. Eckert has invented a series of variations on the character of a smart, slightly cock-eyed Everyman who begins his journey with a pure sense of mission and descends into the maelstrom.

“And God Created Great Whales” was conceived several years ago in a conversation between Mr. Eckert and W. David Hancock, the author of several wildly unconventional Off-Broadway plays (including “The Convention of Cartography” and “The Race of the Ark Tattoo”) who had taken a workshop he taught at the University of Iowa. Impressed with a show called “The Gardening of Thomas D.,” Mr. Eckert’s adaptation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” Mr. Hancock proposed that they tackle “Moby Dick” together. Although Mr. Hancock ultimately didn’t continue with the project, he did introduce Mr. Eckert to his producer, Foundry Theatre’s Melanie Joseph, who commissioned “Great Whales.”

Typically for Mr. Eckert, the work that resulted is several layers removed from Herman Melville. “As I did with Dante, I wanted to find my own way in,” he said. “In this case, as I was thinking of things quintessentially American, I started reading essays by the leading proponents of 19th century American pragmatism -- Charles Sanders Peirce, William James. That led me to thinking about manufacturing pragmatism and the development of the industrial standard. Things we take for granted, like the size and shape of the television screen, were actually decided by some guys sitting around in a room.”

Translating the notion of an industrial standard into musical terms led Mr. Eckert to consider the development of the standard tuning that allowed for the creation of a piano keyboard. In his dramatic imagination, the hero of the piece became a piano tuner with a degenerative disease who struggles to complete his life’s work, an opera based on “Moby Dick,” before he loses his memory completely. For this character, whose name is Nathan, the great white whale is represented at various times by the piano, by the blank page facing the composer, and by memory itself. “He ends up disappearing into his own opera,” Mr. Eckert explained. “As his mind goes down for the last time, he becomes Ahab and goes down with the whale, never to be seen again.”

Mr. Eckert is aware that tackling “Moby Dick” may conjure inevitable comparisons to Laurie Anderson, who last year premiered her own fractured take on Melville’s classic, “Songs and Stories from ‘Moby Dick’.” It won’t be the first time. Both are the type of multi-talented individuals whom the term “performance art” was invented to describe, although Ms. Anderson came to music from the visual arts while Mr. Eckert is steeped in classical music traditions.

“Performance art is a critical name for people who perform their own work that doesn’t fit into conventional categories,” the composer Paul Dresher said in a telephone interview from his studio in Berkeley, California. “Most performance artists express their unique artistry by combining elements of different disciplines, none of which they master. The difference with Rinde is that he comes from an extremely disciplined training as singer, musician, and theater artist.”

Born in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and raised in a family who are all musicians to this day, Mr. Eckert got a master’s degree at Yale expecting to become an opera singer. Although he spent four years after school studying with Phyllis Curtin, he found that he wasn’t spiritually well-suited for the world of traditional opera. He followed his sister Thomasa to Seattle where they formed the New Performance Group. They made a piece with the San Francisco-based director George Coates, who coaxed Mr. Eckert to the Bay Area to co-create “The Way of How” with Mr. Dresher, tenor John Duykers, and dancer-mime Leonard Pitt. The non-narrative multi-media show was a hit (it played the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival in 1983) and put all of them on the map.

Although Mr. Eckert admired Mr. Coates’ spectacle-based kind of theater (Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach,” he said, “changed my notion of what theater could be”), he soon found that he preferred making chamber pieces. Over the course of ten years he and Mr. Dresher collaborated on 12 works that blurred the lines between theater and dance, between rock and classical music. Not all of these pieces have been critically well-received, and his first attempt to direct a piece himself (“Odd Behavior”) was a resounding failure. Yet his multiple skills and willingness to try new things helped make Mr. Eckert a legendary figure in the Bay Area.

“A lot of my learning has taken place in public,” said Mr. Eckert, who moved to New York five years ago with his wife, the playwright and actress Ellen McLaughlin. “I made the contract with myself: I’m interested in learning. If you’re interested in learning, you have to take your lumps. If you don’t want to take your lumps, then you don’t want to learn. If you don’t want to learn, you’re not going to grow. And if you’re not going to grow, you’re going to be bored. And I don’t want to be bored.”

New York Times, June 11, 2000

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